How to deal with North Korea


By Global Public Square staff

North Korea's nuclear test drew the usual reprimands from world leaders. President Obama promised swift and credible action. We know what this is likely to mean – more sanctions and greater isolation for Pyongyang.

But what if the answer should really be the opposite? What if the best way to change North Korea is more commerce and communication with it rather than less?

If you look at examples of how we deal with other countries, sanctions rarely work. In Cuba, 54 years of sanctions have kept the Castros in power while its citizens have suffered. They remain isolated with the lowest rate of Internet penetration in the entire western hemisphere.

In Iran, unprecedented sanctions have been in place for years, but there is no clear sign that the real powers that be, the Mullahs, are in peril. In Syria, no amount of pressure has had any impact on Bashar al-Assad's brutality.

More from GPS: North Korea dance begins again

Now, if you ask Asian diplomats, they will point to Myanmar as embodying the opposite approach. Asian countries traded with Myanmar, invited it to diplomatic gatherings and, over time, persuaded the military junta to open itself up, both domestically and to the world.

There's a pattern in the last two decades of negotiations with North Korea. First comes a missile test, closely followed by a nuclear test, global sanctions, then some talk of rapprochement and, then, back to square one – more provocations.

All the while, the people of North Korea have suffered. In the 1990s, an estimated 2 million people died in a nationwide famine. North Koreans have almost no contact with the outside world. Less than 10 percent of them even have mobile phones, and those are not allowed to call outside the country. Per capita income is estimated to be somewhere around $1,000 a year, about 1/20 of that in neighboring South Korea. The best path to open up with North Korea might be trade deals, travel programs. We could start with student exchange programs.

About a decade ago, Syracuse University started research collaboration with North Korea’s Kim Chaek University of Technology. The partnership has led to the creation of North Korea's first digital library. Technology from that partnership enabled the New York Philharmonic to broadcast its recent concert in Pyongyang.

We might need more of these partnerships, not fewer. Google's founder, Eric Schmidt, recently visited North Korea, and we may need more such trips by more entrepreneurs like him.

In the very short run, they do give the regime some credibility, but in the long run, capitalism and commerce are the assets of modernity that always wear down dictatorships.